Flashing the Reader: Flashbacks and Other Perilous Transitions
by John Robert Marlow
Few works of fiction relate events in a continuous flow, from start to finish. Sometimes the story moves back in time (as with flashbacks); more often it jumps forward, sparing the reader the dull details of ordinary life. Frequently, the transition will take the reader from one location (and set of characters) to another, lending a godlike perspective unavailable to the characters themselves. Each of these transitions has its place—and each is fraught with peril.
Transitions are probably the single biggest source of confusion in unpublished manuscripts—many of which are otherwise of decent, even outstanding quality. Confusion stops the read, interrupts the flow of the story, and pulls the reader out of the world you’ve worked so hard to create. Worst of all, it gives the reader an excuse to put your book down and go do something else. And if the reader’s last impression was one of confusion—they may never pick it up again.
TIME-JUMPS AND PLACE-JUMPS
Time-jumps are just that: passages where the story jumps from one time to another—usually later—time. Very often, this is accompanied by a change in location. Typically, the author is switching from what’s going on with Character A at Location A to events taking place (again, usually at a later time) around Character B at Location B, and then going back to pick things up with Character A. Occasionally, the narrative will stay with Character A while jumping ahead (sometimes changing location, sometimes not). When handled poorly, any of these can be confusing—sometimes wildly so.
Problems arise when the reader is not crystal clear on time or place or characters present in the scene. This is one of those situations where everything is clear in the author’s head—but perhaps not quite so clear on the page. As with typos, we as authors tend to fill in the blanks: because we know how it’s supposed to read, that’s the way we see it—even though that’s not what’s actually on the page. The moment someone else picks it up—someone not intimately familiar with the story, and so unable to fill in the blanks—confusion reigns.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been reading an otherwise competently- (occasionally brilliantly-) written manuscript, only to find myself grinding to a dead halt at a transition point—confused about time, place, character, or some combination of the foregoing.
When you jump ahead (or back) in time, say so immediately: “Later,” “That night,” “The next morning,” “Three weeks earlier,” and similar phrases make good, solid, confusion-busting openings for the first sentence describing events in the new time. The same goes for location: openers like “Later at Sam’s house,” “That night at the concert,” “The next morning in the bedroom,” serve to clarify both time and place.
Another way to do this—when appropriate—is through the use of headings, or what Hollywood calls slug lines: “Moscow, Soviet Union / 1989″ for example, saves a lot of explaining. Such headings are most often used in prologues, which tend to take place in the past. If you do this, and the next chapter takes place somewhere (or somewhen) else, be sure to employ another heading there—”Cleveland, Ohio / The Present” for example. Don’t go overboard with this technique, though: I recall one military thriller manuscript that started each and every chapter with a four- to six-line heading stating city, country, specific locale, and time of day. Absent some extraordinarily good reason for doing this, such antics instantly mark you as an amateur.
More typically, you might use a heading or two in your opening chapters to establish your main locations, and then revert to more standard techniques, trusting the reader to remember (with the help of a few narrative reminders) what those locations are. For example: to explain time, place, and character at the start of a transition, something as simple as “Later at Sam’s house, I…,” “That night at the concert, Janice…,” or “The next morning in the bedroom, the twins…” will serve to start readers out on the right foot. The important thing is this: regardless of where the scene is headed, you want your readers to know exactly where, when, and with whom they’re starting off.
There are exceptions: Situations in which you’re deliberately concealing the when, where, or who from the reader; situations where the character himself is unsure of one or more of these elements and you want to get this confusion across to the reader. The Bourne Identity, for example, opens with a character who hasn’t a clue about any of these—including his own name. Even in such cases, however, care must be taken to avoid disorienting the reader to the point of confusion, which will stop the read. There’s a difference between uncertainty and confusion.
DREAMS, VISIONS, AND FLASHBACKS
These are transitions of another sort, but share many potential pitfalls with time- and place- jumps. Any time you go into a flashback, dream sequence, or vision of any kind (psychic, religious, hallucinatory), you are walking on thin ice above a sea of confusion; one false step, and things become unpleasant—sometimes incomprehensible—for the reader.
Here again, problems can arise when any one of three things becomes unclear: time, place, or identity. But now add a fourth variable: perspective. You may get away with being intentionally unclear or ambiguous on time, place, or (in some cases) identity—a psychic vision of the future isn’t likely to come with time, date, and place stamps—but when it comes to perspective, lack of clarity can be deadly.
I recall a particular fantasy novel manuscript in which three different characters had the ability to see through the eyes of various animals and insects. Each character would occasionally drop into an alternate perspective, which was described in some detail. Trouble was, there would often be no warning that this was about to happen: one moment Character A is standing in a field; the next we’re seeing through the eyes of an insect. At times, the point-of-view would bounce back and forth between human and critter. In some places, there were so many characters projecting into so many creatures that it was impossible to discern who was seeing what.
In other instances, a character would see into the future—but it quickly became unclear what was future-vision and what was present-day reality. The result was occasional—and total—confusion. Editors are paid to read a story regardless of flaws. Readers, on the other hand, will quickly abandon what cannot be understood—or is too difficult to decipher.
The trick here is to maintain clarity when it comes to perspective or point-of-view: if we’re seeing a vision of the future (or the past or some distant place, for that matter), we need to know that. We also need to know where that vision ends and present-day reality resumes. If we’re being dropped into a sudden flashback, we need to know that, too—as well as when we return to the present. And so on. As a general rule, you can get as wild as you like with the visions etc. (the film Batman Begins employs seamlessly-executed flashbacks within flashbacks: do not try this at home), so long as the reader knows where they begin and end.
Dreams often break this pattern; here, the reader may find himself in the dream, and realize it was a dream only when the character suddenly wakes. If you’re very careful, you can do this with visions, flashbacks, etc., so long as the technique is appropriate to the situation—when, for example, the vision etc. first appears to be a part of everyday reality. In most cases, this technique will not be appropriate, because the sudden shift from reality to vision etc. will confuse or disorient the reader.
Here too, there are exceptions: situations in which the character himself is disoriented and you’re trying to get this across to the reader; situations where you’re intentionally blurring the line between reality and vision etc., because (for example) that line is no longer clear to the character in question. Either can be a tricky proposition, and both are easily fumbled. Proceed with caution.
The skip-ahead or “skipper” occurs when the story is clearly leading up to a specific event—but instead of showing that event, the author skips past it, picks up later and continues with the story. Often, the event will later be referred to as having taken place, even though we never saw it. The event itself is almost always an important one. (In one of the manuscripts I edited, the entire story led inevitably toward a large battle—that never happened because the unpublished author was “saving it” for the sequel.) The problem here is that when you build toward an event, you also build the reader’s expectation that he or she will witness this event taking place. By failing to show it, you disappoint or frustrate the reader by creating an expectation which you then fail to meet. It’s also confusing: why build toward something—and then not show it?
When you build toward an event, fulfill the reader’s expectations by showing it. Do not skip past it and pick up afterward. You’re not shooting a movie here; your production costs are the same whether you’re writing a car crash or the destruction of civilization.
There are exceptions to showing events as they happen, and most of these involve perspective, and/or situations where there’s some compelling reason not to show the event in chronological order. Such exceptions are rare. One example would be a story in which the character who experiences the event lies to another character about what took place, and you need to keep the reader in the dark as well; in this situation, showing the event as it happens would make it impossible to tell the story in this way because the reader will not be misled by the lie. It’s even possible to depict the past event in an entirely false manner—again because the character is lying.
The film Courage Under Fire, for example, presents multiple versions of the same event, each related by a different character with a personal stake in the outcome of a military investigation. The Usual Suspects (skip this sentence if you’ve not seen the movie) depicts an entirely fictional storyline from start to finish—again because a character is lying. Both Identity and High Tension (more spoilers coming) depict fictional storylines because the main characters are delusional. In the Bad Blood episode of The X-Files, viewers are treated to different versions of the same event as actually perceived by two different characters, neither of whom is really lying.
DIALOGUE IN TRANSITIONS
Opening a transitional scene with dialogue probably triples your chances of confusing the reader. The problem in this case is invariably the same: the speaker is not immediately identified—and the longer that situation continues, the greater the confusion. I’ve seen entire paragraphs of dialogue preceding any speaker attribution. Sometimes the lengthy dialogue will push the attribution onto the next page. The issue here is that long blocks of dialogue deprive the reader of the vital information mentioned above: where, when, and who.
The solution is simple: if you open the transition with dialogue, immediately identify the speaker. Not at the end of a paragraph, and not after two or three lines. Right away. If the first spoken line is more than a few words, ID the speaker in the middle of the sentence: “If I’m not mistaken,” Bob whispered, “there’s a hungry tiger crouching several yards to your left.”
Any time you find yourself writing a transition, ask the following the questions: Is this transition necessary? Is it absolutely clear where and when we are in the story, and which characters are present? If you’re opening with dialogue, is the speaker’s identity immediately clear? And, after all of that: is there any possible way that any of these details could be misread or misinterpreted? When you can say yes to the first three and no to the last, you’re ready to roll—and not before.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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